Tips on empathetic listening

Welcome to another episode of the Art of Business English. In episode 133 we are going to continue looking at how we can become better listeners at work, with our friends and family.

Today Loic and I will be discussing empathy and how it can help you to become a better listener.

We have divided the episode into several parts, first we will be quickly explaining what empathy is, then we will look at some of the reasons why people don’t share their true feelings. Next, we will cover when we should be using it at work. Following that we are going to discuss the difference between listening to facts vs feelings.

In the second part of the episode we will help you with some useful expressions you can use, plus we will show you some ways you can show empathy and finally we will conclude the episode by showing you some things you should NOT say!

Let’s dive in and take a look at episode 133. 

Watch the episode here

What is empathy?

Basically put, empathy when related to listening is when you try to understand what it might be like to be in someone else’s shoes or position. This is despite the fact that we will never completely understand what it is “like” and as a general rule you should never say you actually do.

It is very difficult for people to correctly show empathy as we often tell someone we know exactly how they feel. We often do this without actually realising it.

Which leads us to the second part of this episode. 

Some reasons why people don’t share their true feelings

People hide their true feelings for many reasons, and this can be more so at work. We often have a work persona, and this can in some cases vary considerably from our out of work persona.

With that being said, if you are a leader, manager or someone who is responsible for managing teams of people, then knowing some of the reasons why people don’t express their true feelings can be very useful. In fact, understanding them can help you to reveal what may be the real cause of conflict within the organisation.

So, let’s take a look at some of the things that leaders may do or miss which can lead to people hiding their feelings.

  • Being absent, too busy or unapproachable (Think, I don’t want to interrupt you as I know you are busy)
  • Not having emotional intelligence to even realise someone is upset or angry
  • Never inquiring about how someone is feeling
  • Discounting someone’s feelings when they do open up
  • Telling someone to stop being ridiculous, silly, or emotional
  • Always jumping in with solutions
  • Not being comfortable as a leader around people who are showing strong emotions
  • Over-reacting to everything

Now that we know some of the reasons why people may hide their feelings from their boss or work colleagues, let’s look at the next part of the episode.

When should we use empathy at work?

I would argue that we need to use empathy at work almost daily. If we want to be good leaders and create empowering, meaningful and productive work environments then we need to show empathy towards our colleagues.

As I am sure you are aware, people nowadays are less interested in money and more interested in fulfilment and leading a life where they feel valued and worthy. Most people nowadays are very focused on a good work life, personal life balance.

There is a strong need for leaders to show empathy towards employees, creating an environment where people feel happy, valued and respected. This environment is much more personal and less about employees just selling their time for money.

So, here are some examples of when you should use empathy at work:

  1. If you notice a strange change in your colleague’s behaviour, ask them if they are OK.
  2. Thinking about the implications of some of the tasks you assign to people.
  3. Trying to understand any personal problems that the person may have outside of work, such as sick relatives or kids.
  4. Being supportive when a colleague or team member fails at something or a project doesn’t deliver as planned.
  5. Being flexible with others and being open to new ideas and opinions. 

These are just a few examples, but as you can see, showing empathy is really just human nature and the right thing to do.

Listening to facts vs listening to feelings

I would say that over 80% of communication at work deals with facts, we are always discussing things that have happened, are happening or are planned to happen. We rarely discuss feelings (unless our boss is really angry!).

Again, as a leader we may ask things of our staff and the results we get may not be what we expected. This can be very frustrating, and you may wish to know all the facts. It is often good to start with getting some facts, but then also find out how people are feeling about it. Maybe there was some friction between departments, maybe someone had some personal issues which affected the quality of their work.

Asking people how they “feel” about this situation and listening to the feelings that are expressed can really lead to much more constructive outcomes and better results in the future. Not only that, it’s times like these that you are building strong bonds and goodwill between you and your team. 

Helpful expressions

Let’s move onto the second part of this week’s episode. Here are some helpful expressions that you can use to show empathy.

  • That sounds like you have been put in a difficult position.
  • That sounds really hard for you.
  • Are you feeling anxious/stressed/worried about what might happen?
  • It sounds to me that you are feeling pretty disappointed by the situation.
  • It sounds like you are feeling hurt by what was said by your colleagues.
  • Would a coffee and a 15 minute break help? 

Ways to show empathy

Now that we have some idea about what we can say to others let’s look at some of the ways in which we can show empathy.

  • Using simple phrases that show active listening e.g. “Wow you’ve been through a lot.”
  • Legitimisation: “Now I understand why you would have felt that way.”
  • Rephrasing or summarising the situation: “I just want to check I understand, you’re saying the client changed their mind without informing you?”
  • Self-disclosure: “I had that happen to me once and I also felt frustrated. “(Try and avoid boomeranging)
  • Express your feelings: “I am really sad to hear that.”

Unhelpful things to avoid saying

Well, that brings us to the last point in this week’s episode, and we will wrap things up by looking at some of the things you should avoid saying in situations where you should be expressing empathy. 

  • Don’t be ridiculous/emotional
  • Just snap out of it, it’s nothing
  • How could you even think that?
  • I think you are being over-the-top
  • Pull yourself together and stop carrying on like a child
  • This situation is really annoying me
  • You never seem to learn from your mistakes
  • I’m sick and tired of repeating myself

Final thoughts

Being a better listener, showing empathy and creating a positive, empowering and productive place to work will only result in positive outcomes. Less employee turnover, happier more productive employees and real champions in the organisation.

Start learning to be an empathetic listener today and see what effects it has on your organisation.

Make sure you stay tuned for next week where we will conclude this mini-series and look at some of the language you can use to actively listen and some of the ways this will help improve your English communication skills.

Remember to leave us your comments and if you love the Art of Business English podcast you can give us a 5-star rating over at iTunes. We would be eternally grateful.

Till next week, happy listening.

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Andrew is the CEO and founder of the Art of Business English. Besides teaching and coaching native Spanish speakers in Business English, he is also passionate about mountain biking, sailing and healthy living. When He is not working, Andrew loves to spend time with his family and friends.

Andrew Ambrosius

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